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Thursday, May 21, 2009


The Death of American Idol

adam lambertImage by h e l e n ♥ via Flickr

I've kept silent, until now, about my feelings on the season-ending showdown between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert. Partially because I felt too strongly about it, and partially because many bloggers I respect, TV bloggers who I consider friends, were strongly pushing Kris to win. Their reasoning included the obvious (Kris is a total hottie), the market-savvy (Adam will get a record deal anyway), and the salient (Kris sang the crap out of "Heartless").

But sadly and distressingly, they also bought into the coded homophobia of this season of American Idol -- especially the unforgiveable sensationalism of the Entertainment Weekly cover story that compelled voters to consider Alan's (homo)sexuality in their voting decision, the blog-buzz criticisms of his "theatrical," "flamboyant" style, and the jokey ridicule of his makeup and costumes. Sure, this homophobia was guarded and never overt, but it was indisputably there, and even gay television bloggers bought into it. Which, frankly, was appalling.

Why? Because even if you love Kris , it is absolutely impossible to argue he was the more accomplished singer. Furthermore, it is impossible to argue he is a better interpretive artist. If you believe otherwise, you simply do not understand music, or the history of American rock'n'roll...and you probably own Jason Mraz albums.

The finale, perhaps better than any other episode, made the contrast between Kris and Adam's vocal abilities obvious. As Kris fumbled through the final number with Queen, "We Are The Champions," Adam embodied the ghost of Freddie Mercury more fully than any performer may ever have. (Even Brian May couldn't take his eyes off Adam afterward.) As Kris strummed a by-the-numbers guitar rendition of "What's Going On" that sounded dismayingly similar to his version of "Heartless," Adam transformed and recontextualized the blues underpinnings of "A Change Is Gonna Come." And don't get me started on "Mad World," an unjustly ignored 80's classic that Adam has singlehandedly reclaimed from obscurity.

Take a spin around the web today, and I'm pretty sure you'll see the meme in the global media: Kris, the wholesome, married "underdog," came "from behind" to beat the "flamboyant" rocker in a "surprise." But I think we all knew last week (if not before) that the narrative of Adam being the frontrunner was based only on a judgement of talent; in reality, the votes have been neck-and-neck for weeks. When the evangelical, hard-right, family values contestant Danny Gokey lost last week, the writing was on the wall...or did you suppose Gokey's churchgoing supporters were secret Bowie and T. Rex fans?

Why is this important? Because the media made Adam Lambert's sexuality an issue...not only in their columns and articles, but in the actual Idol voting process. And since no openly gay person has ever won a reality show based on popular votes -- heck, gay people have never won a popular vote in Congress! -- there was a legitimately instructive moment here. Would people recognize the superior talent, or would their distaste for an androgynous star steer them away from it? Would people embrace an openly gay person as an instant superstar...or choose the safer, and clearly less worthy, choice?

Now, before you all start blowing up my comments area, let me say: Kris is a perfectly nice singer. I like him, more than most winners of previous seasons. He is vastly preferable to Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, etc. I will probably buy his album (unless it's gospel).

But for anyone who knows actual music and vocal performance technique -- structurally, technically, the study and discipline of it -- knows the truth. Adam is simply extraordinary. Rare, even.

The shocked faces of Randy, Simon and Kara after the vote was announced showed that they knew America had fucked it up, maybe for the first time ever. (Well, at least since Chris Daughtry, but America has since rectified that mistake.) Heck, even Kris himself couldn't believe it...the first words out of his mouth were "I can't believe it...Adam deserves this." He knows the truth, too.

In later years, when people start to ask the question, "When did Idol jump the shark?", I'll know my answer. It was May 20th, 2009, when they decided that a blazingly talented kid would be denied the keys to the kingdom...because he was too damn flamboyant outre theatrical Broadway over-the-top artistic wild queer.
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Blogger Joe Reid said...

I'd respond but I suppose I'm too busy drowning in my own internalized homophobia.

Seriously, what the fuck? You can throw your "impossibles" around all you like, Gabriel, but it's never going to change the fact that this is all deeply subjective. Pop music isn't judged on objective metrics here and it never has been. I'm pretty sure that's ingrained pretty deeply in the history of rock'n'roll of which I'm so ignorant.

It's just all so myopic. Up until a week ago, the only people I read who were talking about Adam's sexuality were gay bloggers/writers, all of them talking about it as a positive. Which it was (and is). The idea that the media set out to bring him down, using as its main weapon an EW cover story that pretty much licked the foundation right off Adam's face it was so fawning, rings so false. Now, because he's lost -- not even lost! came in SECOND PLACE out of THOUSANDS -- it was a media conspiracy? This is shrill and reductive and beneath you.

5/21/09, 1:10 AM  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

did i miss something?

everybody keeps referring to adam lambert as "out" but is he? all i've seen is the media referring to him that way without any clarification on his part (the EW profile) and cagey bits like (TMZ) asking him without really asking him and him answering without really answering "the first what?" "the first friend of... you"

so why is everyone acting like he's the first "OUT" anything? I don't think people should get credit for that unless they are.

but that said. from what little i've seen -- two episodes -- he's better than Kris Allen.

5/21/09, 1:54 AM  
Blogger irc215 said...

A cover of "Mad World" was prominently featured in "Donnie Darko". Lambert's performances are modeled after that version (which departs significantly from the original, previously obscure one).

5/21/09, 2:56 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

i haven't watched AI this season at all until the finale. I picked Kris early on because yes i'm shallow and he was pretty :P All i saw from an outsiders (in the UK) persepctive was lots of press being given to Adam which made me a bit mad. True i didn't read the press, but he seemed to be everywhere. Ergo i just felt i REALLY wanted Kris to win.

However, i watched the finale two episodes (2?! Really?!) and Adam totally won me over so much that I actually got quite attached to him in the 2 hours or so I watched him. I totally appreciate everything you've written here. I do think in hindsight now the show is said and done this year, adam will do better off without the constraints of american idol contracts and as Xolondon suggested, go and work with someone from The Ark.

Hope that made sense!

5/21/09, 3:14 AM  
Blogger Jules said...

I have to agree with everything you wrote - you articulated all my thoughts.

But for anyone who knows actual music and vocal performance technique -- structurally, technically, the study and discipline of it -- knows the truth. Adam is simply extraordinary. Rare, even.Damned straight, but I doubt the majority of the people who voted for Kris Allen knew that.

5/21/09, 3:45 AM  
Blogger Midian said...

Adam single handedly pulled "Mad World" from obscurity? I THINK NOT!...Donnie Darko did that.

5/21/09, 3:48 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Whilst agreeing in general with much of what you say (lest not forget how Queen's fortunes plummetted in the USA with the release of the I Want To Break Free video), I think for the sake of accuracy that you should give Gary Jules credit for rescuing "Mad World".

His interpretation of the Tears For Fears song appeared in the cult film Donnie Darko, and was a huge hit in Europe, being one of the biggest selling singles of the decade in the UK for instance.

Adam's version was an almost note by stylistic note copy of the Gary Jules version. We don't want to get into the David Cook "interpretative genius or rip off merchant" debate again.

5/21/09, 6:16 AM  
Blogger Americans living in Australia said...

To be honest, I haven't followed American Idol in years (even though it is screened here in Australia) and I'd never heard of Adam Lambert, but a few clicks through to YouTube and now listening. Gotta say he's quite good.

It's hard to know whether he lost *because* he is gay, but we old-schoolers know too well the fact of the matter is: you simply cannot be a major music superstar in America and be openly gay. You can be bisexual, in the closet, or a small-time one-hit-wonder...but as far being a big star and winning contests like American Idol, where "the people" have a say, forget it. Just look at what happened to acts like Pet Shop Boys, George Michael, k.d. lang, Clay Aiken...as soon as they came out, their American popularity went down the tubes.

Hopefully things will change one day. I think they will.

Anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying that I'm not surprised. And IMHO, Idol jumped shark long, long before yesterday.

5/21/09, 8:01 AM  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

and also: totally agree with your horror that gay bloggers are also buying into the homophobia.

i can't believe the things i'm reading. yikes.

5/21/09, 8:26 AM  
Blogger Musiquefan said...

Well said. I totally agree with you.

5/21/09, 8:43 AM  
Blogger Vance said...

No, I really just couldn't handle that screeching he did. He sounded great when he restrained that a little and I really do like Adam as the performer, but the farther along the competition he got, the more he seemed to let that tongue out and go crazy with the yelling cause he knew he could do it (sorry, I don't need to relive the 70's and 80's anymore, there's a reason it's over!:P). I just found Kris far more musically interesting (and uh, no, he's not like Mraz who I don't love, he's more James Morrison/John Mayer like, who I do) and he had much more subtle choices. Again, both are great, but for very different reasons, but I'd rather see Adam on stage live, whereas I'd rather listen to Kris on the radio or on records.

5/21/09, 8:52 AM  
Blogger Vance said...

And hey, Adam would be PERFECT for Rock of Ages! It even garnered Constantine a BEST ACTOR TONY NOMINATION!!! So all is not lost!

5/21/09, 8:57 AM  
Blogger ModFab said...

To Joe: Sure, music is subjective. But musical technique is not. It's a skill tempered through talent, training, discipline, and ability. Adam has that, Kris does not. Sure, you may prefer Kris more, it's all subjective. But he's NOT the more accomplished singer.

And it's not homophobic to like Kris. But it IS homophobic for anyone to employ coded language to critique Adam -- flamboyant, outrageous, theatrical, effeminate, etc. -- thinly-veiled disparagements that have been slung at gay artists since at least Little Richard's days.

And while you overstate the idea of a "media conspiracy," it's true that in the last two weeks, many media outlets (including EW) decided it was okay to write pieces that asked the question, "Is America ready for a gay pop star?" The very PREMISE of that question is a homophobic action. It presumes that homophobia is a given, and it will keep people from supporting an artist. And by asking the question, I believe they engendered a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Myopic? Sure, I'll take that. I get that you're mad at me. But reality shows aren't just fluff, they're ethnographic social experiments (or so I believe). And Idol is the biggest social program in the universe. So to me, the fact that Americans rejected gays last night is very important. And if you don't believe me, check out the right-wing blogs this morning, who are championing Kris Allen as the guy who slayed the gay dragon...one blog even says Kris may have saved traditional marriage! (Yeah, I can't stomach that one, either.)

5/21/09, 9:53 AM  
Blogger ModFab said...

Nathaniel, you bring up an interesting question. What is "being out" these days? It's not like it was when I came out, where a declarative statement to friends, family and co-workers was the standard that you were "out." Is wearing eyeliner and singing about social change being "out"? No.

For me, though, the minute I saw the MySpace photos of Adam sucking face with multiple boys, I was sold. That's gay enough for me. (And seeing a man who is clearly his boyfriend cheering every week in the audience further cemented my sense that he's a gay artist.)

But until Adam categorically says he's gay, this is all speculation, certainly. Which, in some way, makes the media response to him even MORE homophobic, doesn't it? What if he's straight, and he just lost America's biggest talent competition because of the *perception* that he's gay?

5/21/09, 9:57 AM  
Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

ModFab, Sure, I have no doubt that there were those who voted against Adam because of their perception that he might be gay (we really don't know for sure, do we, as he has never come out, which may very well have backfired on him among some in the gay community for not being entirely forthcoming).

But I submit that there are plenty of gay people who voted for Kris over Adam because he's more accessible. Plus, it's become clear from all the over-the-top media coverage Adam Lambert has received to date, he will be a star regardless.

Let's face it. Both are immensely talented.

Yet at the end of the day, at least for me anyway, it's Kris' CD that I'll be more likely to buy.

5/21/09, 9:57 AM  
Blogger ModFab said...

To everyone: yeah, Donnie Darko, yeah. What I meant is that a song that hasn't been in the public eye since that movie -- eight years ago -- is suddenly back on the charts thanks to Adam.

But yes, Donnie Darko, great movie, no offense intended to it.

5/21/09, 10:00 AM  
Blogger ModFab said...

Steve, agreed that both are talented. (Just one is more so, IMO.) And wholeheartedly agree that Kris is vastly more accessible, and that figured in his win as well, especially for those who didn't read the code surrounding Adam.

I plan to buy both their records. But that's not the point to me, as I'm sure you can guess.

5/21/09, 10:12 AM  
Blogger ModFab said...

UPDATE: I may gag. This kind of story makes me want to buy a gun and hunt down the reporter.


5/21/09, 10:13 AM  
Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

ModFab, I always respect - and champion - your opinion. But I do believe Rushfield got to the very heart of why so many of us were cheering on Kris Allen.

5/21/09, 11:02 AM  
Blogger Vance said...

For some reason the LAarticle won't open for me so I have no idea what it says. But as you mention, it comes down to musical stylings and if you back it out to the whole debate of "good music", the rockers are always going to see Kris as boring and the populist will always see Adam as a screecher. Both have their music ways and it's not that Adam is better than Kris (because if you use that argument to me, then you're equating singing big with better and I don't think that is wrong, but not the only way to see it) but just vying for two different audiences and Kris' quieter ways (which EW wonderfully points out, comparing it to John Devner vs. Kiss) won out, partially I think because AI producers and judges kept beating us with a stick that Adam was the way (which again, I could totally buy and thought AI needed). ok, im rambling, enough with this. back to the real world...(as I listen to Kris Allen on my iPod)

5/21/09, 1:24 PM  
Blogger ModFab said...

Vance, I disagree slightly...I mean, I'm not a rocker. Fer cryin' out loud, I'm a Kylie Minogue fan! (I even own a John Mayer album...which theoretically means I should like Kris, right?) And yet I recognize Adam's talent as the superior one...not just bigger, as you say, but more technically proficient, better supported by the breath, more in tune and on pitch, more expressive, and more creatively utilized.

I am intrigued, though, by your theory that the judges' praise of Adam may have swayed people against him. That's something to think about and chew on...

5/21/09, 2:36 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

I agree with your comments. What a hollow victory for Kris. Everyone knows that he did not win based on talent. A majority of Kris's votes came from his home state and a large portion of the remaining votes were actually votes against Adam. So sad that there are so many ignorant people in this country in this day and age. Adam will outshine them all. He's a superstar.

5/21/09, 3:58 PM  
Blogger Vance said...

Okay, one last time. But I totally disagree that Adam is superior. different yes. but Kris isn't any less of a singer. (But that's why I keep grinning and laughing at this and every other post out there, don't worry, I still love ya!).

But I think while Adam's fans had a STRONG base that never swayed, Kris kept picking up the pieces from everyone else (and eventually gained more than the stronghold Adam kept). And I think some of that was a FUCK YOU to the producers and judges who kept telling us Adam was going to win. Which is why the results were so shocking. Cause even I preferred Kris over Adam (who I still really like and has loved in the interviews), but I didn't think he would pull it off. Does this diminish his win? You'll say yes, but I say no, it is what it is (and really, was this not one of the better Top 2's only matched by the Davids)

5/21/09, 11:22 PM  
Blogger Coffee Maker said...

i wish Kris would embrace his victory better, but maybe he just needs some time for it all to soak in... In any case he'd better not wait too long, Adam is already swooping in to steal his thunder

5/22/09, 12:21 AM  
Blogger Sid said...

"I am intrigued, though, by your theory that the judges' praise of Adam may have swayed people against him. That's something to think about and chew on..."

I'm surprised you didn't think of this before -- several message board all over the internet have had people through this season who simply got tired of the praise that was being heaped on Adam (I know I was one).

Also, I agree about technique, stylings, etc etc but I disagree that Adam was the more "expressive" of the two singers -- I always felt that Kris' performances were far more genuine and heartfelt. For example, I though Adam's first performance of "Mad World" was stupendous but the one he did in the finale didn't really connect with me. I love that he has great range and he can hit the high notes, but do those high notes ALWAYS need to end up in shrieks? I don't think so.

I think Kris will be a better recording artist, but Adam will obviously be a better performer, IMO.

5/22/09, 5:37 PM  
Blogger ModFab said...

Sid, I don't read messageboards, so the idea that people voted because they were mad at the (truthful) judges, rather than for who they think was best, was new to me. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's a pretty good excuse for picking a less-talented person, all things considered.

Reading your post, I saw another example of something that seems to have developed on messageboards across America: the idea that Adam "shrieks." It's one of those indirect slams...akin to calling Kris a "lightweight" or a "Michael Bolton". Whatever you believe about Adam's style, however, there is one fact...those "shrieks" were always controlled, on pitch and in tune. They were as deftly executed as any trill at the opera.

5/22/09, 5:48 PM  
Blogger Sid said...

Gabriel -- agreed that those notes were always technically perfect -- all I'm saying is that he didn't need to do it every time he went high.

Also the judges thing -- there were times when Adam was merely good -- but Paula and the others would go on an on as if they'd seen an entirely different performance. I think there was an obvious bias through the season (towards Adam and Danny).

5/23/09, 4:33 AM  
Blogger Ready2Die said...

I just want to point out that the version of 'Hearless' that Kris sang was not original. The Fray performed the same arrangement months earlier on BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge. Look it up on YouTube. Kris sang it well, but he's getting way too much credit for being original.

5/27/09, 1:56 PM  
Blogger RJ said...

Not every thing is offensive, ya know. Sometimes you just don't get what you want b/c other people disagree with you.

5/30/09, 3:40 AM  

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